■ The Strictly judge, 59, on bullying, ballroom feuds, abandoning England and her love of pigs
Why are you getting record levels of online abuse?
This series has been the worst for online abuse for me. When I block people they open different accounts and message me again. Really nasty comments. You wonder what place they’re in in order to spew such vile abuse to someone they don’t know. I’m shedding light on this because I’ve read about young people taking their lives in the workplace or in schools due to bullying. It’s important to say this is not acceptable behaviour.
Why is it worse this year?
I’m getting more abuse from younger people who maybe don’t understand the show, don’t realise we have to send someone home each week. If I send their favourite home they attack me, saying, ‘I hate you, you’re vile, hang yourself.’ My message is, if you are being bullied don’t keep it to yourself, speak up about it.
Are you worried about your safety?
It’s crossed my mind. I’m vigilant when I go out. My son always tells me to be cautious because there are strange people out there.
One of the dancers’ sisters is now on the judging panel. Should a celeb’s mum be added to the panel to balance it up?
There is no favouritsm on Motsi Mabuse’s part. She is 100 per cent professional. I don’t believe you can add someone to this kind of show who has no dance experience. I could put my mother on — she has a lot of experience watching me dance but she isn’t a dancer. It wouldn’t be the correct thing to do. On the US version of the show Julianne Hough, who I helped raise for seven years, judged my son, who she danced with, and judged her brother — but she still came at it from a professional point of view. These people are trained in an industry where professionalism is key or you’d have no business. You judge without fear or favour.
What’s been your proudest professional achievement?
Coming back in 1995 and winning the British Open [Professional Latin] with my second husband, who was a beginner who I had to train. I was World Cup Latin American Champion in 1983 with my first husband, Sammy Stopford. With my second [Corky Ballas], we started from scratch in 1985 and it took all those years to win — and we won against my ex-husband, who came second. That was my biggest achievement in an industry where people said, ‘Don’t try to come back a second time, you’ve left the country, you’ve moved to the US, you’ve abandoned England, you’ll be nothing but a wallflower.’
Was leaving the country frowned on?
One hundred per cent. Sammy and I represented Great Britain and did well for the country and then I left. I met this other man. I wanted do dance again so I trained Corky from scratch. Anything is possible if you believe.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Bullying. There’s a lot of bullying in our industry if you’re a woman at the top. It’s a male-dominated industry. If you’re a successful female there’s always a male willing to pull you down and stop you working. In 2016 I got a judging job in Europe. A gentleman at the top of the industry called the organisers, saying I was unfit to judge the competition and that if I judged it he’d take away their licence. I lost a judging job because someone I had a feud with, who was higher-ranked than me, decided I wasn’t judging it. It was because of that my son encouraged me to go for Strictly. All my life I’ve dealt with it. If I’d been scared and backed off because of this bullying I never would be where I am today.
Why is it worse for women?
In a few men’s opinions you’re like a bauble on a Christmas tree. It’s old-school and the women do what they say — and if you don’t agree with what they say then you’re out. It’s been difficult.
Are there lots of feuds in the ballroom dancing world?
There are more now than there have ever been. Societies are separating, new societies are being formed, the people at the top of the tree aren’t always fair — it’s a difficult industry to be in now.
Should that put people off going into dancing?
No, if you love dance, you love dance. It gives you strength of character, a backbone, a skill, it helps you deal with life and everyday living. If life was all candyfloss you wouldn’t learn anything.
Any unfulfilled career ambitions?
I want to jump out of an airplane, I want to do a marathon, I want to work on a pig farm and I want to present on TV — the sort of shows people aren’t comfortable presenting.
What’s the appeal of pigs?
I want to be out there in the outdoors. I’ve always loved pigs, they’re really cute. Some people have them as pets. I was thinking of getting one myself.
■ Shirley Ballas judges on Strictly Come Dancing every weekend on BBC1